Know Your Battleground States 8/9: Ohio

Ohio’s flatland isn’t on many tourist itineraries, but it is unquestionably the heart of industrial America. Cris-crossed by major north-south and east-west freeways and freight railways, and with a major deepwater port at Cleveland, Ohio is within a day’s drive of 50% of North America’s population. Trucks depart from plants for all over the United States and Canada 24/7. Manufacturing still directly provides one Ohio job in eight, with yet more dependent on associated transportation and ancillary services, and along with them almost a quarter of the Buckeye State’s GDP.

Tony Packo's Cafe in Toledo, immortalised in MASH.

Northwestern Ohio is centred on gritty, blue-collar, Toledo. While glass manufacturing was Toledo’s traditional mainstay, and remains a presence, the city sits just an hour’s drive from Detroit. Chrysler Jeep production facilities are a major employer, as are a huge number of part manufacturers across the region. An exaggerated Romney ad regarding Chrysler production caused a bit of flap in the media and may have a specific regional impact. The area is also known for having the largest Hungarian American population in the nation, as well as large populations of other Central and Eastern European ancestries.

Toledo, which cast just over 220k votes in the two most recent elections, is strong for Democrats. Its neighbouring counties along the western shore of Lake Erie as far as Fremont, is a swingy area that usually supports the statewide winner. Inland, going as far as Lima, Republicans win every county, but while Bush ran up big margins, McCain won most of these counties relatively narrowly. This region as a whole had a noticeably larger swing to Obama in 2008 than the rest of the state.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Cleveland's Lakeshore

The Buckeye State’s north east is the real Democratic stronghold. Cuyahoga County, centred on Black majority Cleveland, will alone notch up a margin of well over 200k for Obama – just how much more will be a big factor in determining the state’s destiny. Like the northwest, this area received heavy immigration from Central and Eastern Europe a century or so ago, and Slovene and Slovak Americans are particularly thick on the ground here. As well as metropolitan Cleveland, the areas around Akron and Canton also usually vote Democratic, although when they do so only narrowly, Republicans tend to win the state. Suburban Lake County, just to the east of Cleveland is a heavily populated and traditionally Republican-leaning area that Obama will be doing very well in to repeat his 2008 win in.

The east and southeast of the state, from Youngstown up in the north all the way round to the edge of the Cincinnati exurbs, is officially part of the Appalachian region, and that has always spelt problems for Barack Obama. Obama saw only minor improvements on John Kerry’s figures in most of this area in 2008, and in a few counties actually went backwards. Nonetheless, there are pockets of real Democratic strength especially where unions are still strong. Obama won a few counties bordering the West Virginia panhandle, and will also run up big margins in the big regional centres of population around Youngstown and Warren and also in the liberal college city of Athens. Most of these rural counties in Ohio Appalachia gave both George Bush and John McCain shares of the vote in the low to middle 50s%. If Romney can push that into the high 50s, it would indicate trouble for the incumbent. Romney’s local commercials have attacked Obama hard on the coal issue, and it will be interesting to see if the different economic base here sees a different voting trend on election day.

Another interesting factor is that in the nine southernmost counties in the state, ‘American’ ancestry predominates, whereas in the rest of the state, German ancestry is the most common, fitting the Midwestern pattern. ‘American’ ancestry on census returns is the hallmark of the South, and these counties share a lot with neighbouring West Virginia, the classic rustbelt transition state and one that has never been good terrain for Obama.

A riverboat festival on the Ohio River in Cincinnati

Cincinnati, the state’s second major metropolis, is much more politically balanced. Bush managed to win Hamilton County, which it anchors, twice, although Obama managed a 7% win last time. It’s hard to see Obama winning the state without doing it again. On the border with Kentucky, heavily German inflected Cincinnati has a large African American population and the usual big city liberal element, but very conservative suburbs. The three suburban counties cast 375k votes between them, and are some of the strongest Republican counties in the State. Conservative white suburbia also extends some way into the 425k voting Hamilton. This is one of the most conservative metropolitan areas outside the South, and it is the backbone of any win for team red in the Buckeye State.

The different economic base is as much a factor as geography – Procter & Gamble is a big player here, along with Macy’s, Scripps and the usual cluster of financial services institutions.

The centre of the state piles up healthy leads for Republicans in county after county, and in this State of medium-sized industrial towns, some of those counties have a decent number of voters. Allen County, centred on Lima, netted Barack Obama one of his strongest positive swings but still posted a margin of over 10,000 for McCain. Highland County, down near the Kentucky line, is a solid GOP stronghold that netted McCain a 5,000 advantage over Obama. They all add up. There is a reasonable Democrat element in most of them, but getting towards the Indiana line they start getting very conservative indeed.

Columbus' trendy Short North neighbourhood

Democrats hit back in and around the region’s two main cities, Dayton and Columbus. Columbus-centred Franklin County is larger, with 562k voters last time, and more Democratic. It gave Barack Obama almost half his 270,000 vote statewide lead. Suburban Columbus has been ground zero for three elections in a row and these people are the most lobbied voters on the planet. In their phlegmatic, practical, Midwestern way, they’ve almost got used to it. Almost.

Dayton’s Montgomery County is more balanced, and in a good year Republicans will keep the Democratic margin to a few thousands. Even Barack Obama only netted 17k from it. Obama did moderately, but not spectacularly, better than other recent Democrats in the centre of the State.

$192.2 million has been spent in television advertising alone since May. A recent lunchtime television newscast in Columbus featured 22 political adverts in a row interspersed through several ad breaks. Some of the ones for local races where freak-show nasty. How people stand it is beyond me.

Downtown New Philadelphia, in bellwether Tuscarwas County

Perhaps no county is more reflective of Ohio’s appropriately undulating gradients of political support than Tuscarwas County, which has gone with the President five times in a row. It is centred on New Philadelphia, just off I-77, which carries the products of Toledo and Youngstown to the heart of industrial North Carolina and then on to Florida. The Wall Street Journal’s WashingtonWire blog rightly praises its qualities as a true bellwether where “the union-heavy industrial region starts to give way to its more rural, Appalachian, south” – not rich, not poor, with an average number of Evangelicals. The presence of small but tragically famous Kent State within its bounds gives it just that slightly more liberal than average lean that makes it the perfect miniature of the American Midland’s red sweep of conservative rural counties dotted with moderate-to-liberal college cities and union towns.

Here is the terrain for which Obama’s most daring – and hubris-tempting – slogan was forged: Bin Laden Is Dead; General Motors Is Alive. And here in middle America is where the central theme of his firewall – economic populism – will be tested. Nowhere has had a heavier barrage of Axelrod attack ads, or more viciously crafted counter-strikes, than this workaday part of the heartland. Here is where he has his most positive domestic story, the rescue of the American auto industry, to sell. If he loses here, it’s hard to see a way back.

This is where it all stands and falls, in America at its most unromantic, the little cities off I-71 with their freeway exit strip malls, the struggling coal towns in the Appalachians and the parts plants outside of Toledo shipping widgets to Windsor, Canada. Demographics are a long way from the supposed backbones of a new Democratic majority in the South and West. In this ageing, heavily White, rustbelt, state, Obama and all that he invested will be judged, indeed in early voting already is being judged. And that is as it should be.

His central line of defence in this most critical part of his firewall is the Democratic Party’s historic central message – practical, robust, old-style, economic populism. The transformative President’s fate rests on the defence of a very old Democrat principle. If it doesn’t work now, in a State where Obama can claim to have saved an economic train-wreck, will it ever work again? The Democratic Party will here, stand or fall, on the principles of Keynsian intervention and progressive taxation, delivered in an unabashedly populist way.

Here is the American political system at its most advanced, in all its high-tech gimmickry and televisual horror. Here is where the nasty mailshots are sent to polite retired schoolmarms in the manicured suburbs. He loves terrorists. He is a vulture.

There is nothing anyone reading this can do to influence the outcome. I suggest we all sit back, be nice to one another, and enjoy the show.

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  • pauluk

    Rasmussen: 49-49 in Ohio, although the internals favour Obama.

  • Kevsterino

    In a point of interest to Sluggerites in Northern Ireland, that ‘American’ ancestry alluded to above typically denotes 18th century immigration from places like Antrim, Donegal etc. Back then they were the ‘Scotch Irish” (sic)